Before the PC, there were two clear roles that people played in relation to the computers in their workplace: some were users and some were admins. When the PC industry sold the world on "a computer on every desktop", they played up the idea that you would no longer be reliant on your admin. If you needed some software, you could just install it yourself without waiting for anyone else to get to it. You could control your own destiny.
What they neglected to say was that you can't have the freedom and power of the admin's job without its responsibility. It soon became apparent that the real power you now had was the ability to change your system settings, render your machine inoperable, and suffer the glare of your admin when he stopped by your cubicle after you'd called him for help. Now you could experience his BOFH sarcasm in person instead of through email. Whether this could be counted as progress is debatable.
In spite of this, the PC caught on and invaded the home as well as the workplace. (This was a boon to the admins, since they could charge more for driving to your home to berate you.) The home users' needs were modest and there was no network involved, so the security concerns were not so great. With time, home users came to think that part-time computer hobbyists with just enough knowledge to get by could do everything necessary to maintain a system. The distinction between users and admins became blurred in their minds and was replaced with a different terminology: "users" and "power users", the difference being that users could change their desktop wallpaper and power users could install a scanner. There was a short window of time when this was even a tolerable situation, between the time PCs came into wide use and the time they started being connected to the Internet.
Now that that time is over, the need for the professional admin is just as strong as ever (though most home users haven't yet realized it), and so is the need for a securable system. As has been pointed out in innumerable other places, GNU/Linux is the option that has some hope of being secure on the net because its openness allows for peer review and fast patching which find security holes quickly and close them even more quickly.
Non-geeks will say, "I can't use Linux because I don't know anything about it", but what they really mean is not that they can't use it but that they can't admin it. The blurring of the roles has made it hard for them to realize that Linux is actually quite easy to use, though it requires considerable knowledge and continuing education to properly admin.
How many of these people actually know how to maintain the systems they're using now? The vast majority instead buy a service contract with Gateway or rely on their brother-in-law or the kid next door to help them when they get into a jam. It's as bogus an argument as the "Linux is hard to install" complaint that comes from people who bought Windows preinstalled. They're able to claim that Linux machines require administration and Windows machines don't only because they get other people to do their administration for them, then conveniently forget about it.
Given my beliefs that:
, I propose that non-geek home users who wish to use the Internet should be using a securable system such as Linux, and I'd like to offer this business plan to any and all who want it:
Here's what I long ago thought was an obvious question and a need I expected to be filled by now: Everyone is selling support; why isn't anyone selling administration?
Support to the generally clueful is already a solid industry; the "no support" argument has been massacred to hell and back, and no one can raise it with a straight face anymore in a world with companies like Linuxcare. But there's a need beyond support which has to be met as well. There are many people who don't want support -- they want someone to do everything for them.
Though this is almost unimaginable to someone like me who enjoys playing with computers, I can understand it if I think of my relationship with things with which I don't enjoy tinkering, such as cars. I want my car to run, but I don't have time to learn about carburetors. Most people want to use their computers but don't have time to learn to write shell scripts. Even more importantly, as was brought out in the comments to Jon Lasser's editorial on security, they don't have the time or inclination to read bugtraq and apply patches.
Given this unmet need, I offer the following business model:
I can actually confirm that this works because I did it in a test case with a local hardware vendor and a couple who had never touched a computer before. I gave them the machine and basic instructions and told them how to contact me. If there was a problem, they emailed or called me about it, and I logged on and fixed it. If they thought of something new they wanted to do, I installed the software for it overnight, and when they woke up in the morning, they found instructions on how to use it on their Netscape start page, complete with screenshots and arrows pointing to what they needed to do.
There is at least one immediately obvious problem with this from the customer's perspective: "I don't want anyone looking around my hard drive."
It's certainly a reasonable fear, but let's look at the alternative:
In my hometown of Baltimore, MD, USA, cable modems and DSL are becoming commonplace. Non-geeks who take advantage of these services let the installation man connect their Windows machines, then surf and play oblivious to the facts that:
To get an idea of how good a job they're doing as admins, fire up samba and take a look around the @home network. The number of Windows machines that have file and printer sharing turned on is staggering, and their owners have no idea that their credit card numbers, private letters, and pornography collections are open and available for anyone to browse.
So the options are these:
If you really have such secret information that you can't stand the chance that someone might see it, keep it on a floppy or a zip disk, and unplug the ethernet cable before you stick the disk in. Of course, there's the slight chance that your admin will have so little to do and be so little concerned about the possibility of losing his job and going to jail that he'll write a script to copy anything inserted on removable media into a special location for himself. But if you've thought of that, you're sufficiently paranoid that you're admining your own box anyway.
You have to make a sacrifice somewhere. Either you sacrifice your time to learn to admin your box yourself and keep on top of the latest security issues, or you trust someone else to do it for you. The couple in the test case knew and trusted me and their trust was not misplaced. In a more formal arrangement, a business offering admin services to the home would probably have something in the contract promising that any admins found to be betraying their customers' trust would be fired and handed over to criminal prosecution, and procedures would be in place to monitor the admins. There would be a list of circumstances under which it would be permissible for the admin to connect to the machine without being requested to do so by the customer (security risks being chief among them), and no connection would ever be made without immediately informing the customer that it had been done and explaining why.
A clause might also be added to make it clear that the warranty on the system is voided if a day's log summary shows that the customer logged in as root and played God. :)
Jeff Covey received his degree in classical guitar performance but
spent so much time with his computer that he fell in with a bad crowd
and ended up working for Andover.net. He currently works on freshmeat
and runs a computer lab for the
kids in his neighborhood in his spare time.
We're eager to find people interested in writing editorials on software-related topics. We're flexible on length, style, and topic, so long as you know what you're talking about and back up your opinions with facts. Anyone who writes an editorial gets a freshmeat t-shirt from ThinkGeek in addition to 15 minutes of fame. If you think you'd like to try your hand at it, let firstname.lastname@example.org know what you'd like to write about.